Tamil Nadu woman broke barriers, strived to give her children a better life
Most of 52-year-old R Selvarani’s life was spent working in her office cubicle and taking care of her son and daughter in a sleepy Tamil Nadu town. Her only dream was to give her children a better life than what she had.
Born in Madurai as the eldest of three siblings, Selvarani, after her wedding, moved to Achipatti town, a hamlet of about 10,000 people sandwiched between Pollachi and Coimbatore in western Tamil Nadu.
The couple came from modest means and Selvarani and her husband, Ramanujam, worked hard. After their second child, Praveen Kumar, was born in 1999, Ramanujam could spend only 18 days with the family before he left for Sharjah, where he worked as a construction worker laying tar on roads. “Since then, my mother has run this family,” said her daughter R Sinduja, 25.
Selvarani, who is only a high school graduate, worked as a bookkeeper for a private company. “My father would send his salary, but she took care of everything else. I’ve never seen her rest or take leave. Every day she worked in office, and she worked at home,” said Sinduja.
Sinduja, who has a master’s in business studies, is supposed to get married in November and her brother Praveen has just completed his undergraduate studies. “Life is blank. Days aren’t making sense anymore,” she said.
Ramanujam suffered a paralytic attack two years ago and can only run errands at the construction company. He returned to India after Selvarani died on May 7 and the family is still in shock.
It started as a fever for Selvarani in late April. Her nephew Jaiganesh Balakrishnan took her to a doctor who prescribed medicines saying that it seemed like a normal fever. Balakrishnan wanted to rule out Covid-19 so he took Selvarani for a CT scan but the scan results showed that she had 20% lung infection.
He immediately took her to a government hospital which also insisted it was mild. “They told us to take an RT-PCR test and if it was negative, they told us that she may have already overcome the infection,” said Balakrishnan. The report came back negative. “We were so relieved,” recalled Balakrishnan.
But worse was yet to come.
Late night on May 1, Selvarani started to struggle to breathe. “I remember the date because the next day was the election results,” says Balakrishnan. He called his friend who is an ambulance driver and at 1am they started driving around with Selvarani on oxygen.
They drove to every hospital in Pollachi but there was no bed available. The ambulance driver and Balakrishnan began ringing hospitals in Coimbatore but were told none were vacant. With no other option available, they drove to Coimbatore to check in person if oxygen supported beds were available. Some private hospital staff arrived, checked her oxygen levels that was 88 with support.
“But after checking, they would say no bed is available,” he said. The ESI hospital finally informed them that the Coimbatore government hospital (GH) had 25 new beds with oxygen support. At the time, the second wave of Covid was ravaging Tamil Nadu, which was posting around 20,000 cases and more than 150 deaths every day in the first week of May.
Six hours after they had left home, they got Selvarani admitted. But the ward was newly constructed and oxygen supply wasn’t fully connected, so she was shifted to another ward.
Balakrishnan went back to Pollachi but when he spoke to her later in the evening, Selvarani complained that she wasn’t given food and medicines.
Balakrishnan tried to find her a bed in a private hospital and when he went to pick her up the next morning, he found Selvarani surrounded by three corpses in adjacent beds.
“She told me they had died the previous night, but no one took away their bodies. She spent an entire night next to people in distress who died in front of her. It really scared her.”
Her condition kept worsening. In the private hospital, she often pulled away her oxygen mask and screamed, and had to be put on a ventilator. “It was unusual. I think she was traumatised,” said Balakrishnan.
He lamented that early diagnosis could have saved her life. The family suspects Selvarani was infected at work where one of her three co-workers was sick. “They didn’t inform her that it was Covid-19. People think if they’re infected, it’s criminal so they hide it,” he said.
Despite Tamil Nadu’s markedly superior health infrastructure, the surge in infections overwhelmed hospitals in the hinterlands, especially in smaller cities and of cases there have been a disproportionate number of high deaths in villages and smaller districts.
For her family, Selvarani was a feminist though she may have not known the word. “My mother was never dependent on anyone,” said Sinduja. “She was very bold. She pampered me but she also taught me to get a job and be independent.”
The family said many women in the city looked up to Selvarani. “She worked all her life to help bring up her family, her children have graduated, one of them got married. But she is gone,” said Balakrishnan.